Highway to the North

The origins of the Great North Road by David Smith

A road to nowhere

The southern end of East Finchley occupies the land which was once The Bishop of London’s hunting park. In around 1300 the Bishop of London created a new route for the main road heading north out of London to the north of England, which became known as the Great North Road. It began at Smithfield and passed through Islington, Highbury and Holloway, along the route of the current A1, and then up Highgate Hill, North Hill and became today’s Great North Road through East Finchley.

By 1444 maps show a bridge, later known as Hanson Bridge, crossing the Mutton Brook – a tributary of the River Brent, which rises in Cherry Tree Wood.
The road initially followed the line of Market Place and The Walks to King Street, which was the boundary of the Bishop’s land. Beyond this point the road simply opened out onto Finchley common. 

By 1712 the road had become so busy that a toll was introduced to pay for its upkeep. The road through East Finchley was also rerouted to follow the route of the current A1000 High Road. The section from Hanson Bridge to the north was named New Gate Lane and followed a straight line to what is now the crossroads at Fortis Green/East End Road, passing through a toll gate close to where the station now stands.

Distances to the north were measured from Hicks’ Hall, the former Middlesex magistrates’ courthouse, which was located at the southern end of St John St, Smithfield, and were marked by a large stone – a milestone – every mile. The first milestone was at Islington Green, the second at Highbury Corner, the third at Holloway, the fourth at the foot of Highgate Hill, the fifth on North Hill and the sixth stone where East Finchley High Road meets the end of Bedford Road.

The Five Mile Stone in Highgate. Photo: Alison Roberts

Highwaymen and hangings

In the 1700s, the area to the east of East Finchley High Road, known as Finchley Common, was one of the most dangerous places in London on account of the highwaymen. The mounted robbers usually patrolled the main roads out of London where there was heathland or woods to hide in – and Finchley common was one of their favourite spots. Famous villains associated with the common include Dick Turpin and Jack Sheppard.

Notorious highwayman Jack Sheppard made his escape from Newgate Prison in September 1724 reputedly disguised as a butcher wearing a blue and white striped apron. He made off up The Great North Road but was recaptured in East Finchley and held overnight in the George Inn in The Hog Market. Just up the road, Oak Lane is named after Turpin’s Oak, an ancient oak tree where Dick Turpin was said to linger. When the tree was finally cut down in the 1950s it was found to be full of old musket balls.

Such was the problem of highwaymen that a gibbet was erected at the Six Mile Stone in East Finchley. Here highwaymen were executed and their bodies left hanging from chains to deter others.

Richard Turpin Surprised at the Sight of a Gibbet on his Road to York, London, 1836. Courtesy Rare Old Prints/The History Collection

An excerpt from Julian Woodford’s ‘Stick Up at Six Mile Stone’ published in Spitalfields Life:

“Shortly after 5pm on Thursday 11th March 1773, Henry Cothery was driving his wife and four-year-old daughter Ann in a small one-horse chaise across the common towards their home in the City of London, having spent the day visiting his elderly father in Barnet. As they neared Six Mile Stone, they were clumsily overtaken by a man on horseback. Cothery was remarking that the man must be drunk when he turned, whipped out a pistol and yelled ‘Stop, your money!’

Cothery’s attempts to fob off the highwayman with a couple of coins backfired when the fellow grew more aggressive. Little Ann Cothery became tearful and the man softened, saying ‘Don’t be frightened, Ma’am,’ but persisted in his demand. The Cotherys had only a few pounds. Fearing for their lives, they handed over the money and the robber galloped away towards London, as Cothery yelled ‘A Highwayman, A Highwayman!’

Some passersby on horseback gave chase. As the pursuit careered down Highgate Hill and into Holloway, the posse grew larger and a mad chase ensued, with the highwayman flying through turnpike gates and occasionally turning to fire his pistol. Eventually, his horse tiring, he was cornered in a brickfield to the north of Shoreditch and forced to surrender. Identifying himself as Thomas Broadhead, he was dragged to the magistrates’ office in Worship St and confronted by Justice Davy Wilmot, the much-feared and satirised magistrate of Bethnal Green.

Wilmot was an illiterate builder and slum landlord who had risen to the dizzy heights of the magistracy through a corrupt trade in verdicts, pardons and bribes. Broadhead was charged with committing multiple highway robberies that afternoon and, when he was tried a few weeks later at the Old Bailey, Henry Cothery and his wife were witnesses. The evidence was conclusive and, despite six character witnesses in his favour, Thomas Broadhead was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was executed in Newgate and we may presume his body was carted back to East Finchley and exhibited upon the gibbet at Six Mile Stone.”

(c) Spitalfields Life
Further reading: Stick up at Six mile Stone by Julian Woodford

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